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Issue #5

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Building competencies for co-creative partnering for local, adaptive development

Abstract: Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be adopted by the international community in September 2015 are set to drive development processes and finances over the next 15 years. It is widely recognised that if the SDGs are to succeed, then many organisations including INGOs will need to move away from a top-down, donor-driven, solution-delivery focused approach to development to become better partners. This will test their capacity to shift organisational cultures and approaches to development towards a more open, flexible and adaptive way of working. One way to drive change within an organisation is to develop staff competencies, knowledge as well as attitudes and behaviours to negotiate, build and manage effective collaborations. The author draws on five core competencies, adapted from World Vision’s Advanced Partnering Competencies Framework (March 2015) and aligned with the broadly recognised partnering cycle, to explore how applying them helps development practitioners navigate their day-to-day work balancing organisational requirements with practical partnership brokering, and how this can contribute to a change in attitude and behaviour, ultimately resulting in truly participatory, locally-led and sustainable development processes and outcomes.

Building competencies to move from solution delivery to co-creative partnering for local, adaptive development

Multi-stakeholder or cross sector-partnerships are an increasingly prominent theme in global debates about international development cooperation. It will certainly feature in the discussions on implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[1] to be adopted by the international community in September 2015 to drive development processes and finances over the next 15 years. Cross-sector partnerships are positioned as the vehicle to deliver better, more inclusive, more sustainable solutions to the one billion people who live in extreme poverty[2], and to many millions more who do not have access to clean water, energy and basic health services to name but a few of the most pressing development challenges of our time. As Ros Tennyson says “the hypothesis underpinning a partnership approach is that only through comprehensive and widespread cross-sector collaboration can we ensure that sustainable development initiatives are imaginative, coherent and integrated enough to tackle the most intractable problems. Single sector approaches have been tried and have proved disappointing.[3]

Doing Development Differently[4] is another emerging debate which has been gaining traction recently, emphasising problem-driven and politically-informed ways of working, entrepreneurialism, and local stakeholder engagement as key principles to increase impact of development interventions.

With this drive towards cross-sector collaboration, NGOs, UN agencies, national and transnational businesses and government actors alike are gearing up to become fit for partnering in order to remain relevant as the SDGs move to implementation through multi-stakeholder platforms.

Often, over time, these organisations have developed rigid governance and operational structures designed to make them successful players in the traditional field of bilateral aid systems. This environment has favoured individual action and even competition (for example, among several child-focused NGOs for the same aid funds), underpinned by a top-down, donor-driven approach to development, which has focused on achieving pre-defined targets over a pre-defined period of time which can be measured and reported on. These organisations will need to adapt their systems and processes, as well as their staff skills and competencies to become better partners if they want to remain relevant in the development space.

Building partnering competencies of staff to shift gears

The internal change processes that are necessary to make especially (I)NGOs “fit for partnering” have the potential to shift organisational cultures and approaches to development towards a more open, flexible and adaptive way of working, which – as a recent report by ODI[5] suggests – will be necessary if the SDGs are to succeed. One way to drive change within an organisation is to build staff skills, knowledge, and, alongside that, attitudes and behaviours to negotiate, build and manage effective collaborations. Core competencies of skilled partnership brokers include interest-based negotiation, mediation, workshop and process facilitation, active listening, and co-creation, as in creating a shared vision of what needs to be changed or achieved.

Developing these competencies in staff can change development practitioners’ mind-set from service- or solution-delivery to meaningful co-creation through facilitation of participatory processes[6]. This bears the potential to unlock the wealth of knowledge, creativity and innovative energy that exists in people, in communities for whom lack of access to basic health service, energy or education is a daily reality – not an issue for which yet another project model needs to be developed and implemented. According to the ODI, “Change is best led by people who are close to the problem and who have the greatest stake in its solution”.[7]

Five elements of partnering that promote local, adaptive approaches to development

In this article I present the case for an increased emphasis in the development sector on partnering and collaborative approaches, and pro-active investment to provide staff with relevant hard skills (tools, approaches, frameworks) and soft skills (enabling behaviours attitudes) to identify, develop and promote local solutions. This in turn can be a way to overcome top-down approaches to development whereby ready-made solutions are imported into contexts where these may or may not bring about the intended results. De Villiers concludes in a recent paper that “collaborative approaches can lead to emancipatory development”, adding the caveat that this is the case “only if attitudes and power issues are intentionally addressed”.[8]

To structure the argument, I am using five core competencies, adapted from World Vision’s Advanced Partnering Competencies Framework (March 2015)[9] and aligned with the broadly recognised partnering cycle[10], to explore how applying them helps development practitioners navigate their day-to-day work balancing organisational requirements with practical partnership brokering, and how this can contribute to a change in attitude and behaviour, ultimately resulting in truly participatory, locally-led and sustainable development processes and outcomes. Each of the five elements builds skills, knowledge and attitudes in staff that are crucial for emancipatory development.

1 Identifying potential partners – A chance to think outside the box

This critical first step – which is often operationalised through a joint landscape or stakeholder mapping – has been described as eye-opening and a paradigm shift by development practitioners, as it allows them to see and value the resources each partner brings to the table. These can range from tangible assets, such as funding or infrastructure, all the way to intangible, but just as important contributions, such as knowledge of local power structures, networks, policy influence etc. This is especially so when we view the local community’s potential contribution: “When you look at the community as a partnership broker, you are likely to be amazed at the wealth of resources and contributions they can make. The community can truly be an equal partner in the development journey […].”[11]

Such an identification and valuation of potential partners’ and stakeholders’ assets and resources is key to levelling power structures. It also equips development practitioners with tools to carefully analyse their own organisation’s strengths and weaknesses to attain an objective. This leads to the important realisation that no single organisation has the capacity to address a complex issue, such as improved child wellbeing, on its own, and that many critical factors actually lie outside our own organisation’s sphere of influence.

2 Being effective and principled negotiators – Creating value and a vision

Strengthening skills in negotiation based on principles of equity, transparency and mutual benefit enables development practitioners to facilitate the creation of a shared vision with potential partners, while at the same time ensuring that everyone mutually benefits from this process. Creating a vision is good – however creating value is better. In order for real mutual benefit to be realised, the broker needs to ensure everyone negotiates enough for their own organisations as well as creating value through the joined up approach. Every development organisation has their mandate, mission and vision, which can be as broad as eliminating root causes of poverty, improving child wellbeing, or have a narrower issue focus such as providing access to clean water to poor populations. Whatever the mission of an organisation, if it were to be achieved, then it needs to be translated into the local context, anchored in local needs, and therefore reflective of a local vision for development.[12]

Experience and increasingly also documented case studies[13] suggest that locally driven partnerships often produce dynamic and original approaches and are more likely to find the most appropriate solutions.[14] This competency also equips staff to carefully analyse the partners’ interests with a view to the shared vision, and facilitate a process to explore possible strategies and solutions. In essence, this means starting with the problem or the issue that needs to be addressed, and brokering each partner’s contribution to it.

Collective action planning is a way to build ownership over the process: “The response to our new approach has been overwhelming. When we did our action planning collaboratively, people were saying ‘I can provide this, I can provide that’[…]. That wasn’t happening before”.[15]

Development practitioners who use principled negotiation and brokering to design and co-create interventions with partners are more likely to reach consensus (including on the boundaries of the suggested partnership) and create a shared vision of what success looks like in that specific context, while at the same time mitigating the effects of power dynamics and maximising the achievement of common as well as individual objectives.

3 Manage and support partnerships at all stages – Creating shared ownership and fostering innovation

The effective management of a partnership throughout the implementation of activities requires the broker to enable and promote accountability and transparency between partners to build trust over time, which can be achieved through open communication and mutual feedback mechanisms. This requires staff to develop and make use of a range of soft skills and attitudes, such as careful listening, explaining, exploring, sensitive trouble-shooting and mediation. But also “hard skills” are necessary, such as clear communication and transparent documentation of the partnering process, and supporting the effective and equitable governance of the partnership. Development practitioners who are familiar with the basic concept of how to maintain a partnership appreciate the fact that it takes time for collaborative efforts to develop and emerge, which in some cases can cause conflicts with organisational demands to meet targets, indicators and deadlines. However, a well-managed partnership process includes building partnering capacity in others, which is critical for real participation and subsequent sustainability of the process and outcomes. Well-brokered partnerships at the local level are also deemed to “create the conditions for innovative solutions […] as a direct result of collective problem solving and resource sharing.”[16]

4 Monitor and evaluate collaborations – A chance to be more entrepreneurial

The implementation of monitoring plans allows the partners to regularly check progress against shared as well as individual goals, keep an eye on changing power dynamics and changing contexts over time which may need to be revisited and reconsidered. This provides an opportunity for partners to learn from successful interventions and failures, and to revise and adapt strategies and implementation plans accordingly. This monitoring and evaluation element essentially allows a more entrepreneurial way of going about development, having identified the overall goal, but ideally leaving space for different strategies to be tested and adapted along the way: “because development problems are typically complex and processes of change are highly uncertain, it is essential to allow for cycles of doing, failing, adapting learning and (eventually) getting better results.”[17]

Development practitioners acting as brokers will appreciate the necessity to use effective governance and good, management-focused monitoring as critical elements to allow the partnership to evolve.

5 Manage partnership transitions wisely – The key to sustainability

Given that “sustainable outcomes” – through participation and local ownership – is regularly stated as one of the main drivers for adopting a partnering approach[18], this element of the partnering cycle is a critical one. Transition needs to be considered right from the start and built into all stages of the partnering cycle through active capacity building of partners and transfer of ownership or leadership to those actors in the community who are best placed to continue to do so. It requires development practitioners to consciously transfer skills and knowledge to partners, to build systems and structures which enable effective partner entries and exits, with the end goal to ensure sustainability of outcomes, but also of the collaborative process itself once the INGO withdraws from a project site.

Case in point: Collaborative action changes health policy in Uganda[19]

World Vision’s social accountability approach Citizen Voice and Action (CVA) facilitates cross-sector dialogue at the local level through a highly collaborative process, with the aim to empower communities to engage with their governments in order to improve services (like health care and education). A recent review of a project in Kiboga District, Uganda, with the aim to improve maternal and child health in the region, concludes that “collaborative action through CVA by community members, civil society organisations, NGOs, government, and the health directorate can influence the regulatory framework to effect real change in communities. Kiboga district experienced a reduction in diarrheal and malaria infections and general malnutrition in the first year of the public health and sanitation ordinance that was created due to their advocacy. Sustaining these achievements calls for strengthening a unified collaboration of all the partners and other significant actors in further implementation and reflection on the effectiveness of the ordinance.

Applying a partnering approach can be a way to drive local, emancipatory development

An increasing number of examples[20] underpins my assumption that building staff capacity in partnering leads to a more locally driven and owned process, which in turn leads to more adaptive strategies and innovative solutions to social problems, which yet in turn will be key to address complex development challenges as outlined in the SDGs.

However, building staff capacity to successfully broker local collaborations to drive adaptive local development is one side of the coin; an “enabling partnering environment” is the other. For collaborative approaches to flourish and bring about the desired positive social change, broader systems (INGO’s internal policies and systems, as well as donor requirements and the way most aid funds are administered) need to change as well.

Donors have a role to play 

Even though an analysis of traditional aid donor policies and processes in view of a partnership approach is out of scope for this article, it is worth mentioning that donors – bi- and multi-lateral donors as well as businesses which move from philanthropic to more strategic sustainability investments – do have a critical role to play in supporting collaborative approaches to development at the local level. In the context of current ODA trends towards more control and value-for-money, this would require almost a U-turn in donor policy. Current practice often requires NGOs to account for their spending on an activity-based budget and project design in a way that leaves no room for adaptation, let alone innovation or failure. Such an environment favours the use of standardised solutions and translate into inflexible internal policies and processes within NGOs themselves. “Blueprint planning” and ready-made solutions to development issues, however, bear a number of risks, including:

  • goals and objectives which were set elsewhere are not grounded in (economic, political, cultural) reality and context;
  • goals and objectives are not understood and owned by those supposed to benefit from them;
  • projects end when “service delivery” stops, without having found a lasting solution to the problem.

In line with the broader Doing Development Differently movement, the ODI report already mentioned above suggests several ways in which donors can contribute to rather than impede partnering approaches for development, for example

  • refocusing on how aid works, not how much is spent,
  • focusing on results, rather than on activities,
  • acting as facilitators and brokers of locally-led change, not as managers. [21]

In an article on collective impact Kania and Kramer also highlight the need for a “fundamental change in how funders see their role, from funding organisations to leading a long-term process of social change […] without identifying any particular solution in advance.”[22]

Consequences for the partnership broker

Diverging approaches can create tensions in “front line” development staff who have to consolidate rigid organisational policies and processes, which were mostly designed to satisfy donor requirements and emphasise targets, indicators and outputs, with a collaborative approach which requires time, flexibility and a “catalyser/ broker” mindset rather than an “implementer” mindset. Development practitioners acting as brokers in local development, therefore, not only have to broker the local process as such, but also navigate the complex field of internal reporting standards and guidelines. They also have to be skilled in their internal negotiations to effect change and move in-sync with their organisations. I believe that the partnering competencies and principles outlined throughout this paper provide useful tools for development practitioners to cope with these tensions.

Conclusion

The growing recognition that a different approach to development is necessary to address complex social problems results in high levels of interest from a range of actors: traditional ones, such as (I)NGOs and governments, but also the private sector. The fact that they are all willing to join the debate is encouraging and should be seen as an opportunity and entry point to reinforce genuine collaboration as the more promising, maybe the only realistic way forward. It remains to be seen to what extent these actors are open to changing their internal systems to allow more flexibility while at the same time keeping the focus on results. A great first step would be permission to work in a different way with a different source of resources with different expectations. A critical role partnership brokers can play in this, in addition to supporting movements such as Doing Development Differently, is act as internal and external advocates or change agents to drive change from within. It will also be critical to more systematically document learnings from partnership brokering processes, document results as well as the intermediate changes that are most effective in improving those outcomes, and of course capture success stories. By doing this, an evidence base will be built over time that demonstrates the effectiveness of partnerships to enhance locally-led, adaptive development initiatives.

As a partnership broker I feel excited about the opportunities a collaborative approach brings for real participation, empowerment and sustainability, enabling people to find solutions to issues that affect their lives through collective action.

Author

Marisa VojtaMarisa Vojta works for World Vision International based in Geneva, Switzerland. As Manager for Resource Mobilization and Strategic Partnerships she is responsible for the establishment and strengthening of relationships with partners and donors to mobilise resources and maximise impact of World Vision’s programs on child wellbeing. Her areas of focus and interest are innovative financing and cross-sector partnering for development, including shared value and inclusive business approaches to corporate engagement.

Marisa holds a Master of Arts in Intercultural Communication and Translation Studies from University of Graz, Austria, and a postgraduate Certificate of Advanced Studies in Development and Cooperation from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich. She is also currently in the process of becoming an accredited Partnership Broker by the Partnership Brokers Association.

Footnotes

[1]  See SDG 17.16: “Enhance the global partnership for sustainable development complemented by multi-stakeholder partnerships that mobilise and share knowledge, expertise, technologies and financial resources to support the achievement of sustainable development goals in all countries, particularly developing countries” and SDG 17.17: “Encourage and promote effective public, public-private, and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships”.
[2]  http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview, consulted 09/03/2015
[3]  Tennyson R., 2011, The Partnering Toolbook, http://thepartneringinitiative.org/tpi-tools/toolbook-series/
[4]  http://doingdevelopmentdifferently.com/
[5]   ODI Report (2015) “Adapting Development – Improving services to the poor”, http://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/9437.pdf Key aspects highlighted in the report are “starting with problems, not ready-made solutions”, “understanding and engaging with politics” and “supporting locally-led reform.”
[6]  De Villiers, I. (2014) “How do local INGO staff work through collaborative approaches to achieve emancipatory development?” (in press). De Villiers distinguishes between development managers seen as “implementers” or “managers-of-development” as opposed to “catalysers” or “managers-for-development”.
[7]  ODI Report (2015) “Adapting Development – Improving services to the poor.”
[8]  De Villiers, I. (2014) “How do local INGO staff work through collaborative approaches to achieve emancipatory development?” (in press)
[9]  World Vision’s advanced partnering framework is the result of a rigorous and participatory review process of its development approach, through which five partnering core competencies were identified as main aspects that needed systematic strengthening.
[10]  See for example http://thepartneringinitiative.org/about-us/philosophy-and-approach/the-partnering-cycle-and-partnering-principles/, consulted March 30th 2015
[11] Direct quote from a development facilitator in Malawi, taken from  the World Vision/ PBA report (2013) “Brokering local collaboration – An inquiry into a programme to systematically build partnership brokering as key staff competence in World Vision’s local programmes for sustainable child well-being”
[12] Korten, D. (1990):”Getting to the twenty-first century: voluntary action and the global agenda”, West Hartford, Conn: Kumarian Press
[13] A good case study of a successful locally-led development process can be found at ODI: http://www.odi.org/opinion/9209-adapting-development-land-rights-philippines
[14] Tennyson, Harrison and Wisheart (2008): “Emerging opportunities for NGO-business partnerships.”
[15] Direct quote from a grant manager in Malawi, taken from  the World Vision/ PBA report “Brokering local collaboration – An inquiry into a programme to systematically build partnership brokering as key staff competence in World Vision’s local programmes for sustainable child well-being” (2013)
[16] World Vision/ PBA report (2013) “Brokering local collaboration – An inquiry into a programme to systematically build partnership brokering as key staff competence in World Vision’s local programmes for sustainable child well-being.”
[17] ODI report (2015) “Adapting Development – Improving services to the poor.”
[18] De Villiers and Tennyson (2014) “Brokering Local Collaboration, London: Partnership Brokers Association and World Vision International”, available at http://partnershipbrokers.org/w/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Brokering-Local-Collaboration-Inquiry-Jan2014.pdf
[19] “Changing Lives through Social Accountability” (2015), in press
[20] In addition to the ODI example cited above, see also http://www.wvi.org/local-advocacy/publication/citizen-voice-and-action-uganda, and “Changing Lives through Social Accountability” (2015), a collection of case studies of World Vision’s Citizen Voice and Action approach as well as other tools such as participatory budgeting and deliberative policy-making.
[21] ODI report (2015) “Adapting Development – Improving services to the poor”
[22] Kania J. and Kramer M. (2011): “Collective Impact”, Stanford Social Innovation Review, available here: http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/collective_impact/

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